Roman Restraint: Competition and Morals in the Roman Republic

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Belonick, Paul, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Meyer, Elizabeth, Department of History, University of Virginia

Iam pridem equidem nos vera vocabula rerum amisimus.

Indeed, for quite some time now we have lost the true vocabulary for things.

— Sallust, Bellum Catilinum 52.11

Scholars have long recognized that the fervid competition among Roman elites for status, achievement, and offices was a defining characteristic of the Roman Republic. This competition for self-advancement helps explain the Republic’s culture of electoral and legal contests and its military expansion. But the fervid competition raises the question of how a group of hyper-competitive aristocrats managed to keep a republic functioning for nearly four centuries.

This dissertation explores the answer to that question, and examines the inverse of self-advancement: values of self-restraint that made the Roman Republic’s longevity possible. The dissertation argues that certain “restraint values” to which the Romans gave names such as moderatio, temperantia, and modestia—which encouraged respect for and deference to peers and equals—have been long misinterpreted as personal or ethical values. The dissertation shows how, instead, these concepts formed a group of political values that restrained and ordered the aristocratic competition.

The dissertation then investigates how the social norms of the restraint values dissolved, arguing that the values eventually lost their prohibitory force to constrain action, not because they were abandoned, but because disputes over the proper application and meaning of the restraint values in novel political and social circumstances grew into violent clashes as men on both sides of the disputes imagined themselves as last-ditch defenders of the essential values and, accordingly, imagined their opponents as bent on the Republic’s destruction.

Thus, paradoxically, the restraint values became accelerators of conflict rather than constraints on conflict, until the Roman aristocratic competition found itself without functioning guardrails, and plunged into civil war.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Roman Republic, Competition , Fall, Breakdown, Moderatio, Modestia, Temperantia, Existimatio, Pudor, Verecundia, Deference, Restraint, Morals, Norms, Aristocratic, Gracchus, Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Cato, Crassus, Caesar, Catiline, Cicero
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